“Tribulation 99,” the Superman serials

By Michael Atkinson IFC News [Photo: "Tribulation 99," Other Cinema/Facets] A subterranean poet of paranoia,...

By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: "Tribulation 99," Other Cinema/Facets]

A subterranean poet of paranoia, bricolage wizard Craig Baldwin makes movies out of yesteryear’s garbage celluloid that are half radical firestorm and half psychotic poppycock. The mixture is virtually self-defining: cheap cultural flotsam emerging from Frankenstein surgery with a boggled head of Freudian free-associations and an insurrectionary temper. Each time he redefines a chunk of educational film or government agitprop or Mexican horror flick, he is questioning what the images mean, how absurd their original intentions were, and how their political power can be used not for oppressive evil but for good — or, at least, sardonic hijinks.

A radical anti-establishmentarian, Baldwin is less pedantic than he is pulp-satiric, and the movies are endlessly unpackable. His most famous film, “Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America,” is also his masterpiece: a breathless, fevered screed in 99 chapters that details the tapestry of 20th century history as it has been influenced and manipulated by the inner-earth-dwelling Quetzals. The story, illustrated by pirated sci-fi movies, military PSAs, TV commercials and school-science reels, intersects with the CIA, Howard Hughes, Fidel Castro (seen as a skid-row Bible-class Jesus), Manuel Noriega, Ronald Reagan, Atlantis, Pinochet, Kissinger, E. Howard Hunt, the Mayan empire, United Fruit, the Bush family, Oliver North and many more.

Only 48 minutes, Baldwin’s film packs in enough loony ideas and sly comedy for four features; every cut and snippet is a layered joke, about American paranoia as well as the very real conspiratorial establishment that has dominated politics in the postwar era. For purists, just the harried repurposing of orthodox film footage (always without permission) is enough of a rebel yell, and with this film Baldwin had raised the bar on an entire school of experimental filmmaking: the kind that doesn’t use cameras. “Tribulation 99″ is sci-fi avant-garde intellectualism as action film, and perhaps unique among “underground” films, it can be and should be seen several times, with each viewing paying off like a broken slot machine.

Or you can return to the image bank itself — with the old matinee sweetmeats “Superman” (1948) and “Atom Man vs. Superman” (1950), 15-chapter theatrical serials released as a sweet DVD box in order to multi-promote the dreary “Superman Returns” disc. In a pre-television world, film series like these were the weekly gasoline poured on the imaginative flames of Cold War kids, one of which was the apparently impressionable George Lucas. Punctuated with mushroom clouds, charmingly set-bound, and unscrupulous in their use of archive footage (by way of freeze-frame, Superman actually halts the whip-wobbling of the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge in mid-collapse, in order to evacuate a bystander), these vintage mini-movies (or four plus-hour marathons, depending on how you take them) are blissful gray heavens, child-like yet haunted by nuclear dread.

They’re also faster-moving than the later George Reeves TV show or Christopher Reeve movies, not wasting a frame and breathlessly comfortable with replacing star Kirk Allyn in mid shot with a zooming cartoon figure, shooting out of office windows like a cannonball. This is rentable ur-cinema, an entrancing place to retreat to, perfectly suited for a rainy or hungover winter Sunday afternoon. The supplements — new making-of interviews with cast and historians, a doc about the S-man’s trajectory through the 20th century — push the box total to well over nine hours.

“Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America” (Other Cinema/Facets) and “Superman – The 1948 & 1950 Theatrical Serials Collection” (Warner Home Video) will be available on DVD on November 28th.

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